Persecution Perpetuated: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Semitic Violence in Nazi Germany

Persecution Perpetuated: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Semitic Violence in Nazi Germany

By Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth

The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2012)

Abstract: How persistent are cultural traits? This paper uses data on anti-Semitism in Germany and finds continuity at the local level over more than half a millennium. When the Black Death hit Europe in 1348-50, killing between one third and one half of the population, its cause was unknown. Many contemporaries blamed the Jews. Cities all over Germany witnessed mass killings of their Jewish population. At the same time, numerous Jewish communities were spared. We use plague pogroms as an indicator for medieval anti-Semitism. Pogroms during the Black Death are a strong and robust predictor of violence against Jews in the 1920s, and of votes for the Nazi Party. In addition, cities that saw medieval anti-Semitic violence also had higher deportation rates for Jews after 1933, were more likely to see synagogues damaged or destroyed in the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, and their inhabitants wrote more anti-Jewish letters to the editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer.

Introduction: A growing theoretical literature argues that cultural norms are powerful determinants of individual behavior and that they can persist over long periods. From fertility and trust to corruption, there is also convincing empirical evidence that events and institutional arrangements in the distant past influence norms and preferences today, and that parental investment contributes to long-term persistence of attitudes. That being said, culture often evolves quickly. Attitudes toward homosexuals, working women, and premarital sex have changed radically since the 1960s. A key challenge in cultural economics is to explain when norms and beliefs persist and when they are malleable. A fuller appreciation of what influences transmission will ultimately contribute to a deeper understanding of the origins of cultural differences themselves.

This article analyzes the historical roots of anti-Semitism in interwar Germany. Germany’s persecution of Jews is one of the defining events of the twentieth century. The extent to which it reflects a deep-seated history of anti-Semitism is controversial. We explore the long-term persistence of interethnic hatred by using a new data set of almost 400 towns where Jewish communities are documented for both the medieval period and interwar Germany. When the Black Death arrived in Europe in 1348–50, Jews were often blamed for poisoning the wells. Many towns and cities (but not all) murdered their Jewish populations. Nearly 600 years later, defeat in World War I was followed by a countrywide rise in anti-Semitism. As in 1350, the threshold for violence against Jews declined. This led to waves of persecution, even before the Nazi Party seized power in 1933—but only in some locations.

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